31 December 2021

The Charles Lieber case reveals America’s scientific rivalry with China

Charles lieber, a renowned chemistry professor at Harvard, tried to avoid jail by lying to federal investigators about his work in China over the past decade. It may have seemed a reasonable if unethical gamble; the federal probe was investigating allegations that China was stealing scientific insights. No evidence suggests that Mr Lieber stole anything. But sometimes the cover-up is not just worse than the crime—it is the crime. On December 21st Mr Lieber was found guilty of lying to federal authorities and failing to declare both income earned in China and a Chinese bank account. He could face up to 26 years in prison and $1.2m in fines, though as a first-time offender he will probably not be punished so harshly. Still, Mr Lieber is 62 and has late-stage lymphoma. A few years behind bars could prove a life sentence.

His downfall is a cautionary tale. America’s intensifying geopolitical rivalry with China has made previously innocuous relationships with Chinese academics suspect. As in similar cases the Department of Justice (doj) has pursued, proving that Mr Lieber or his associates engaged in espionage was a tall order. His hubris made their job easier. Yet as the crackdown on Chinese economic espionage continues apace, American science could suffer.

Ambitious scientists such as Mr Lieber depend on large research budgets and access to top talent. Despite having received more than $15m in grants from the National Institutes of Health (nih) and the Department of Defence (dod) between 2008 and 2019, the chance to get significantly more funding, this time from China, proved irresistible. Partnerships with foreign universities, including Chinese ones, were hardly unusual. In 2011, Mr Lieber signed an agreement with the Wuhan University of Technology (WUT) to collaborate on fundamental research in nanotechnology, his area of expertise. He also signed a three-year contract in 2012 to participate in China’s Thousand Talents Programme, a government recruitment scheme to attract foreign scientists, that would provide $1.5m in funding for a new lab at WUT. Mr Lieber himself would receive up to $50,000 a month, some of which was deposited in a Chinese bank account, along with compensation for living expenses.

Mr Lieber failed to confess these details, both to the irs in his tax filings, and to investigators from the dod and nih when they came knocking on his door in 2018 and 2019. Although partnerships with foreign universities are legal, America’s government requires scientists receiving federal funding to disclose ties to foreign universities. And China’s organised efforts to obtain valuable technologies through espionage are no secret. China has committed billions to acquiring them in key sectors identified as priorities, including nanotechnology. While some areas, such as green energy, may be largely benign, others such as aerospace and materials science have military applications.

In response, the doj launched its “China Initiative” in November 2018, a campaign to prosecute cases of Chinese economic espionage. As Margaret Lewis, a law professor at Seton Hall University, explains, this was an unprecedented effort to target crimes in connection to one country and to focus on “nontraditional” sources of intelligence, such as academics.

The prosecution of Mr Lieber might look like evidence of the China Initiative’s success, but that is not necessarily the case. Investigators admitted in court that they chose to pursue Mr Lieber in part because of the presence of ethnic Chinese researchers in his lab, which raises the risk of surveillance of people on the basis of their race—a violation of the doj’s own guidelines. “This plays directly into Beijing’s narrative of anti-Chinese racism,” says Emily Weinstein of the Centre for Security and Emerging Technology, a think-tank.

Another worry is the government’s heavy-handed approach. Proving economic espionage is difficult: prosecutors must show that any knowledge transferred was indeed a trade secret, and persuade a jury that the defendant acted with the intent to benefit a foreign government. As a result, the doj has focused on zealously prosecuting disclosure issues at universities—all its university-related convictions thus far have centred on research-security and tax-fraud cases, not espionage. The government argues, not unreasonably, that contacts with Chinese universities will, by definition, pass on scientific expertise to the Chinese government. But the doj may not fully grasp the grantmaking process and the specific technologies at issue. Its case against Anming Hu, a professor at the University of Tennessee, ended in an acquittal based on lack of evidence.

When the fbi came to arrest Mr Lieber in January 2020, he admitted that he “wasn’t completely transparent by any stretch of the imagination…I was scared of being arrested, like I am now.” Academics watching his case will no doubt take greater care, including by vetting their associates. The suspicion that now clouds any association with China could have a chilling effect. As geopolitical rivalry intensifies, the government rightfully worries that a growing range of technologies could provide China with an economic or military edge. But not delineating which technologies pose risks may lead researchers to shun any collaboration with China at all, even in mutually beneficial areas. American scientists may also refrain from hiring researchers with family ties to China. For a country whose greatest strength is attracting the world’s best and brightest, this could prove damaging.

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